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Why Canada Needs to Ditch the First-Past-the-Post System

(REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

Democratic legitimacy should not be a partisan issue; we, as Canadians, should all be taking this opportunity to discern how to make the country a more inclusive and participatory place.”

Introduction

The possibility of electoral reform has been making waves again in Canada with Quebec, the country’s second largest province, flirting with the idea of a referendum on breaking with the first-past-the-post electoral system. For readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of Canadian politics, first-past-the-post is the colloquial name for a plurality voting system where voters cast a ballot for a single member “riding” (electoral district/constituency).  The candidate who receives the most votes, even if they don’t win an outright majority, becomes the Member of Parliament representing a particular riding. The system is similar to the way Americans elect the House of Representatives, with the exception that the party which wins the most ridings typically forms the government, thus fusing the legislative and executive branches of government.

The system was adopted from the British model and has the benefit of typically producing strong federal governments. Many saw this as a necessity in the early years of Canadian independence, when many feared a potential American invasion or fractures between the French and English populations killing the young dominion in its cradle. Today, these concerns are less pressing, and many are now criticizing the first-past-the-post system for its tendency to concentrate too much power in the hands of a winning party. In particular, since only a plurality of votes is needed to win a riding, it tends to reward big tent parties with majority governments, even if less than forty percent of voters cast a ballot for them.  

The Argument for Reform

These calls to reform the system locally are joined to a more sustained campaign for  sweeping changes at the national level. Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party initially promised that 2015 would be the last Canadian election held under the current model, though they quickly backtracked on that promise. Nevertheless, change continues to be debated at the provincial level, with major national parties continuing the fight for reform federally. These calls have sparked euphoria for some and outrage from others, who feel that the current system has served Canada well. Conservative media, in particular, has been critical of the push for electoral reform. Some of this occasionally just reflects an unreflective dedication to the status quo for its own sake. But other contentions have more merit to them. In particular, many have acknowledged that there is a serious problem in a federal or provincial party pushing for change if it has only received the electoral backing of a minority of citizens. Baptizing a new and more democratically-representative electoral system with the tarnish of undemocratic unilateralism may well be hypocritical. This is why many such critics claim that only a referendum where a clear majority of votes express a desire for electoral reform can legitimate efforts to move forward. As many critics pointed out, a political party backed by thirty-nine percent of voters has no business invoking democracy to change a system that has been around for over 150 years without broader legitimation.

There is a great deal to this argument, and, like many, I feel that a referendum should be held to determine the opinions of Canadians on this issue. Instances of direct democracy are fairly rare in Canada—but not unprecedented when the issue is big enough. A referendum would also be much more in keeping with the spirit of reform than proceeding unilaterally, a move which could tarnish whatever new system a party may choose to replace the old.

The issue critics seem less willing to analyze is whether they also cede more of the argument than they might want to. If the concern is that unilateral reform is undemocratic, why should the argument just be limited to this particular instance and not be extended to criticize the system that allows it the happen? Critics should keep in mind that enacting such transformative policies efficiently and without requiring a broad democratic mandate is not a bug in the system. It is the outcome the systems centralization of power is meant to achieve. Absolute power for four years is the gold ring to be won in our current first-past-the-post system. It makes one wonder whether critics who demand a referendum are truly committed democrats who want the government to stand by its own principles—or if their dispute is motivated by more partisan concerns. This is especially true of the aforementioned conservative media.

For years now, the Conservatives have been the party which has benefited the most from the first-past-the-post system. Of all the major parties, the Conservative Party of Canada probably has the largest and most loyal base, hovering around thirty percent of the electorate. The fact that this base is concentrated in certain areas of the country, most notably the West, also means that even when they lose elections the Conservatives hold onto a significant number of seats because a plurality of voters in those regions will almost always vote for them. This is a significant electoral advantage the Conservative Party of Canada currently enjoys. The problem for the Tories is that, of all the major parties, they have also had the hardest time expanding support beyond their base. Unlike the centrist Liberals who typically enjoy large swings of support from left-wing voters keen to block the right—and even the left wing NDP under Jack Layton which benefitted from fleeing liberal and Bloc voters in 2011—there is a very large slice of the electorate that may simply never vote for the Conservatives without a major shift in political culture or policy direction. If the 2008-2009 coalition crisis is any example to go by, the other parties are also far more likely to work together to exclude the Conservatives than to band with them to block, say, the Liberals.

Rather than address this problem, the Conservatives have been very incrementalist and tactical in their approach to elections. They strategically target demographics and ridings where they feel like they have a good shot at winning, while, more or less, ignoring the rest. These strategies led them to win a majority government in 2011 with thirty-nine percent of the electorate behind them—or roughly the same percentage the Liberals enjoyed in 2015. These strategies may well become unviable under a more representative electoral system, most of which reward parties with substantial cross-over appeal. It might make it impossible for a party like the Conservatives to ever aspire to win a majority government again without adopting policies which appeal to a broader swathe of a rapidly changing electorate.

Conclusion

All of these factors means it is a partisan priority for many Tory supporters to seek to block electoral reform, much as they accused the Liberals of wanting to push forward with changes that would benefit them before the plan was abandoned. But reform shouldn’t be a partisan issue. In his 2014 book Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber argued that political power is becoming ever more centralized in the Prime Minister’s office, with the opinions of individual Canadians mattering less and less.

It is hard to argue with him. Any system that essentially allows a political party to operate a four year autocracy by winning less than forty percent of the vote can hardly claim to be a model of democracy. Perhaps more disturbingly for those concerned with local representation, it means that many people who cast a ballot for a losing candidate in their riding have their opinion more or less dismissed for several years. This is true even if the candidate simply wins a small plurality of the votes.  If sixty percent of voters in a riding don’t want a Conservative or Liberal member of parliament, it isn’t much of a democratic claim to observe that at least they have someone there to represent them—especially if systems like mixed member proportional or single transferable vote might be able to blend the best of all worlds more effectively.

As many of my friends have reminded me, the current system isn’t a disaster. It has virtues that should not be dismissed lightly. More importantly, not all change would be equal. Some possible electoral systems have defects that should be seriously considered and rejected. But that is not an argument for retaining the status quo. Democratic legitimacy should not be a partisan issue; we, as Canadians, should all be taking this opportunity to discern how to make the country a more inclusive and participatory place.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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